SAN ANGELO, Texas (KLST/KSAN) — Benjamin Kelly is known as the ultimate pioneer of change in San Angelo. Breaking the color barrier for then Angelo State College as the first black student and football player in the time of segregation.
“I call him the reluctant champion because that’s just what he was. He was a champion, not just for Angelo State, but for the city of San Angelo,” says Joe Munoz, the Senior Executive Assistant to the President and General Counsel at Angelo State University.
“Ben would talk about sometimes how badly they would treat him on the football field. How they would step on him and spit on him, they would try to do certain things because every school that they played was still a segregated school,” says Munoz.
“The decision for integration was a great decision, it was only made too late,” says Phil George, the former 1953 football Linemen Coach for the Rams. “It should’ve been made generations way back, in my opinion, and I have always said this. The college did not integrate Benjamin Kelly, Benjamin Kelly integrated the college.”
George was on the coaching staff as a linemen coach in 1953. He credits Kelly with the humble tenacity to push toward the goal line during a time of racial bigotry.
Dudra Butler, a San Angelo Community Activist, describes Ben Kelly as humble. “I don’t ever recall Ben Kelly ever having any kind of arrogance ego. He just was a good man, good person.”
“I think what impresses people even the more is how he handled it, and if you knew Ben personally, there was no one else in San Angelo or anywhere else I can think of that I’ve ever met in my life that could’ve done what Ben Kelly did,” says Munoz.
“Most buildings at Angelo State are named because people put forth millions, and most of them are named posthumously. The person that’s being named is still with us,” says Butler. “Ben had passed away when hundreds of thousands of dollars were donated to name the weight room after Ben and Alvetta Kelly.
The Ben Kelly Center for Human Performance is an all-purpose facility on the campus of ASU for fitness, outdoor adventures, and extracurricular activities for the student body. In the lobby, a plaque rests on the wall for students to acknowledge the legacy of Kelly and how he changed history 70 years ago.
“A lot of people don’t wonder or research why buildings were named after certain people, but in this particular case, I would hope that our students, all of our students, would take an interest in reading who Ben Kelly was and what he did,” says Munoz.
After his football career, Ben Kelly would return to San Angelo and become an advocate and instrumental voice of change for the local Boys and Girls Club.
Kelly died in 2014 at the age of 83. He set a precedent for African American students and athletes at Angelo State University. He was inducted into ASU’s Athletics Hall of Honor and the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame.